Hello my lovely readers! It’s been a crazy week on the blog with everything from the Nigerian Lit Reading/Reviewing Project to white trash zombies to a smack-down with a rude author. Phew! And that was just one tiny part of my life, lol.
This was my first full week working my new part-time job at the restaurant. Due to the new schedule, I can only do the gym 3 days a week instead of 5. I was worried this would lead to me losing ground on my get fit challenge, but that is clearly not to be the case. My restaurant shifts involve running around like a chicken with my head cut off for anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, and if anything I’ve seen my metabolism increase from more expended energy. And that’s just the regular shifts! I’ve also had shifts involving “guerilla marketing” or what my co-worker calls “menu bombing.” If you live in a city, you know what this entails. Running around residential neighborhoods leaving menus in mailboxes, on porches, and on cars. I had no idea how many steps are on Boston porches until I climbed them for two hours. Holy shit, Batman! It was like getting paid to do the stairmaster. (If you can’t tell, I’m happy about this). I love my part-time job! Plus they feed me dinner most shifts. Since it’s a healthy restaurant, that means free healthy food, yay!
The classic fall New England weather is here, which means crisp air and frosty mornings. Halloween decorations are up all over the city, and I clearly need to start work on figuring out my Halloween costume. My co-worker last night suggested I could pull off being Lara Croft, and I absolutely LOVE the idea, so I’m thinking that may be it. But shhh, don’t tell!
I’m really hoping to finish up the first draft of Tova Gallagher 2 this weekend, so I can get to editing my zombie book! I can’t wait to get more of my writing out to you guys. Be sure to check in tomorrow for the discussion of the next book in The Real Help Reading Project (it’s my favorite that we’ve read so far).
Tonight I’m doing yoga and hopefully seeing some friends. Happy weekends all!
Professor Jacqueline Jones presents the extensively researched history of the dual working worlds of black American women–at home and in the workforce–from slavery to present. She highlights the ways in which the unique cultural history of slavery as well as being subject to both sexism and racism have impacted black American women’s lives.
This is the second book for the Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy. I specifically requested that she host the discussion for this book for a special reason. Jacqueline Jones was my professor for one of my classes required for my history major at Brandeis University (she now teaches at University of Texas), and suffice to say, she and I did not get along very well. I was concerned that this history might make it difficult for me to discuss this book, so I asked Amy to host. She obliged. I am going to do my best to discuss this book without bias, but my personal experiences with Jackie Jones (as the Brandeisians called her) definitely gave me my own perspective in reading the book.
I was completely engrossed in the slavery and Jim Crow sections of the book. They taught me a lot I was previously unaware of, as I always kind of avoided the Civil War in my American history classes. (I focused on colonization, Revolutionary War, westward expansion, and WWII). For instance, it was interesting to see how the matriarchy slave owners forced upon slaves affected and impacted black culture even to this day. It was also the first time I saw sharecropping explained and spelled out. It is easy to see how black women, particularly ones widowed or single mothers, would choose to move to a city and become domestic help to escape the back-breaking work of share-cropping.
The book also demonstrates how black American culture has come to depend upon the iconic image of the strong black woman to help them through horrible racism and working conditions. Yet, by the end of the book, we can see that this means a lack of support for black women that is reflected in long-term illnesses and mental illness. Although black women are to be respected and lauded for their role in helping their communities, it is time that less is laid upon them. One obvious thing? Less time spent serving whites.
Since this was read largely to combat The Help, which takes place specifically in a domestic environment during the Civil Rights movement, I want to take a moment to discuss what I learned about that specific era in this book, because the book as a whole obviously covers a very large period of time. The book clearly demonstrates that the Civil Rights movement was BLACK women fighting for BLACK people and sympathetic whites came down from the north to help with things like voter registration, and they were then housed by BLACK women who would literally sit on their porch with a gun to protect the workers. This is in stark contrast to the image laid out in The Help where a WHITE woman comes and convinces the black workers to talk to her for their rights.
Additionally, the book repeatedly demonstrates how black women constantly throughout American history have sought to get out of white homes for any other kind of labor (except in the case of sharecropping). The role of domestic simply rings too close to slavery, and can you blame them? It certainly is apparent that many, if not the majority, of white employers sought to use black domestics as as close an approximation to slave labor as possible. One issue I don’t think the book addressed well enough is that any situation where one is working as a servant in another person’s home serves to antagonize relationships between the two groups. There is no friendliness there. One person is doing a menial chore in the home of another that the other is wealthy enough to not have to do. How could that possibly bring about anything but negative feelings?
Now, ok, here’s my criticism of the book. I feel that in Prof Jones’ passion for the plight of minorities in the US, she can sometimes over-compensate the opposite direction. By that I mean, she sometimes presents minorities as super-human or at no fault for their own actions or she’ll ignore negatives entirely. For instance, we only got two paragraphs out of 480 pages on black women working in prostitution. Personally, I wanted to know more about this, as it is a type of work black women have engaged in (as have every color/race of women ever), and I wanted to know the specific roles sexism, racism, and a hostile culture played in that for them. Specifically, I was interested about how the idea of lighter colored black women being more desirable to white men that we saw in the first book of our challenge might have carried over to prostitution in the 1920s and 1930s. But Jones doesn’t talk about this, and from my own personal experience with her, I speculate this is partly a blinders on her eyes issue.
Similarly, one thing that really irritated me was every time Jones tells a story of a woman working herself to the bone trying to provide for her children only to have her husband abandon her, Jones excuses the man by saying….”Well…..racism,” and moves on. Certainly, I am sure that some of these men were simply stressed out and thus abandoned their families, but I’m also certain that some of them were just assholes and would have done so in a completely non-racist society. To wit, I believe Jones falls too hardly on the nurture side of nature/nurture, when psychiatry has repeatedly demonstrated that it actually is a combination of the two that determines an individual’s behavior. By this I mean, I am certain that a non-racist society would lead to a larger percentage of happy, healthy families, but it by no means would wipe out all questionable behavior by all members of that race. To suggest that all members of a race would be “good” minus racism is just as racist as to suggest that all members of a race are “bad.”
That said, while I enjoyed the earlier portions of the book, as well as the sections on domestic labor in the 1950s and 1960s, I do think the book tries to tackle a bit too much in one entry. The sweep is almost overwhelming at times when reading it. I’d recommend getting a print copy so you can skim for the chapters of most interest to you or so that you can read various sections as questions arise.
Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!
Reading Project: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context (Co-hosted With Amy of Amy Reads)
What’s a Reading Project?
I am really excited to be doing my first social justice themed reading project, which is different from a reading challenge. A reading challenge challenges you to broaden your reading horizons. A reading project takes a topic that matters to you (or that should matter to you) and creates a reading list about that topic by people who know to help you learn about it, as well as drive discussion on such an important topic. Now, allow me to explain the genesis of and reasons behind my first reading project.
What Led to the Project
I’ve grown to become good friends with Amy of Amy Reads over the past year, and when Kathryn Stockett’s The Help blew up in literary circles then became a movie, well, both of our ires got up. We discussed back and forth the issues via gchat, tumblr, and twitter, sending articles and mini-rants to each other and just generally being peeved that so much of the population got swept up into something so offensive to both black and white women in 2011 for goodness sake.
Let me explain to you in my own words my problem with The Help. Stockett is a white woman who grew up in the south with black maids. She claims that when her maid died she felt regret at never having gotten to know her as a real person, so she decided to write this fiction book about black maids in her home state in the 1960s. Right away, I was offended that her instinct was to write a fictional account instead of, oh I dunno, maybe making an effort to fight racism by befriending black people?
For those who don’t know, The Help is about a college educated white woman who comes home and interviews the black maids in her town and publishes their stories. I cannot really wrap my mind around the thought that Stockett thought of doing a project like this, but instead of being an editor of a collection of memoirs and real-life scenarios by black domestic workers she chose to fictionalize the whole process.
This leads me to one of my largest points. The Help is Stockett living in a fantasy land version of history. One of the first things you learn as a history major is to NOT romanticize the past. You have to get up close and personal with how ugly it truly was. Shows like Leave It To Beaver completely leave out real issues like racism, classism, sexism, etc… This is what Stockett is repeating. She regrets her relationship with her own black maid, so she writes a truly mary-sue style book wherein a college educated white woman gets to know the black female domestic workers and comes to their aid. This isn’t reality. This isn’t a harmless feel-good book/movie. It’s Stockett’s fantasy method of dealing with the racism she grew up with. Why not instead have written a book about a white woman who goes to college in the north and comes to regret the racism she was raised with? Who confronts the fact that she spent more time being cared for by a black woman than her own mother? That would have been real. That would have been something respectful to talk about. Instead, though, she chose to write a fantasy version of the 1960s American South where the racism really isn’t so bad and a white female activist isn’t put into any danger by her activism.
The whole thing is offensive. It’s offensive to black and white women. It’s offensive to black domestic workers of the past and present. It’s offensive to white women who faced real danger and estrangement from their families protesting racism. It’s offensive to the black people who stood up for themselves and fought racism without any white people coming along and telling them they should. And yet people are happily taking the blue pill and revising history.
Thankfully, not everyone is doing that. Slowly Amy and I started to see similar reactions to our own throughout the web. Here are just a few examples:
Indeed, with regard to the white children for whom they cared, black women often felt levels of “ambiguity and complexity” with which our “cowardly nation” is uncomfortable. Yes, my grandmother had a type of love for the children for whom she cared, but I knew it was not the same love she had for us. (Shakesville)
The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement in which, as Martha Southgate points out, in Entertainment Weekly, “…white people were the help,” and where “the architects, visionaries, prime movers, and most of the on-the-ground laborers of the civil rights movement were African-American.” The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in. (Roxanne Gay)
And indeed, the stories of black domestic workers during the Civil Rights Movement are compelling narratives that deserve to be told. But by telling them through the lens of the benevolent white onlooker (Emma Stone’s “Skeeter” in The Help, who records the stories of the maids), it dilutes the message and impact. The black women who struggled during that time are strong enough to stand on their own. They don’t need an interpreter to serve as a buffer between them and the audience, to make their experiences more palatable for today’s viewers. (Kimberley Engonmwan)
It’s frustrating because in these narratives—written by privileged Whites—Black people are always passive. Things are done to them or for them, but they are never the agents of their own liberation. (And sorry, but no, telling the Nice White Lady about your shitty boss isn’t being an agent of your own liberation—not when Black women were actually organizing against Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings and violence, and the intimidation of Black voters.) (Feministe)
What really pushed it over the edge for me, though, and got me going from stewing to activisting (that is a word because I say so) was when someone tweeted a link to the American Black Women Historian’s response to The Help that is not only eloquently put, but also includes a suggested reading list at the end. The reading list got my wheels turning and next thing I knew I was emailing Amy to suggest we do something with that list.
What the Project Is
There are 10 books on the suggested reading list, 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction. For the next five months we will be hosting a project to read one fiction and one nonfiction book and discuss the content and issues raised. One blogger will host each book. For the first month, Amy will be hosting the nonfiction book, and I will be hosting the fiction book. Other bloggers with an interest in the project are welcome to host! Just email me and (opinionsofawolf [at] gmail [dot] com) and Amy (amy.mckie [at] gmail [dot] com) to let us know your interest and what book you might like to host the discussion for.
The fiction book will be discussed on the second Saturday of the month, and the nonfiction book will be discussed on the fourth Saturday of the month. The first Saturday of the month will wrap-up the previous month’s discussions and announce the next two books.
So next Saturday I will be discussing A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight. Please come join in the discussion! You don’t have to read the book to engage in the discussion, but I highly encourage you to do so.
On the 24th, Amy will be discussing Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones.
We encourage you to join in with us on the project to stop letting people revise history. Get to know the facts behind the history of black domestic workers in the United States and read fictionalized accounts of the experiences written black writers, all recommended by educated historians.
Books of the Project
Like One of The Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life, Alice Childress
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neeley
The Street by Ann Petry
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera Hunter
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Presentby Jacqueline Jones
Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody